3 weeks in Berlin: 15 little things I’ve learned

We’ve spent 3 weeks in Berlin, exploring and relaxing and imagining what it would be like to live here. Inevitably, my initial impressions have changed so dramatically that I can hardly remember what I was thinking two weeks ago, when I was a little uneasy. Here is some of the essential information I’ve picked up.

1) You cannot set your watch to a Berlin train, nor can you count on the buses following their assigned route.

2) Bicycles own the road, the sidewalk, and anything else they want. Do not try to defy a bicycle: they will run you over with a chirpy bell and a “danke shoen!”

3) You can get pretty far here speaking English and Spanish. Some say even farther than if you speak German!

4) Eis is the word for ice cream. Beyond that, you’re on your own at the ice-cream store. With only color as my flavor guide, I’ve ended up trying some unusual ones: yogurt-currantberry, cardamom-passionfruit, apricot-something and blueberry marshmallow, to name a few. All were delish.

5) Despite the profusion of ice-cream, Berlin is a vegan paradise.

6) There is too much delicious food here to try in a few weeks. For non-vegans, I recommend focusing on bread, döner and ice cream. Currywurst is overrated as far as I’m concerned.

7) German-style breakfast is…amazing.

8) Wasps like sugar, they really like honey, but they go absolutely crazy for mortadella. A crazy wasp is not a pretty sight.

9) If you want to chance a ride on public transportation without a ticket, do so at your own risk: the transportation police don’t always wear uniforms.

10) Not all Riesling is too sweet.

11) The little neighborhoods of shacks that take up blocks here and there are not German shanty-towns. They are little garden communities, or Kleingarten, where city people can rent or buy a remote backyard for growing flowers and food.

12) Sometimes, though, the shacks are part of a squatting community. These communities are loudly visible in many of the Berlin neighborhoods I’ve visited, announcing their anti-capitalist presence in the middle of a city that, by all accounts, is rapidly changing.

13) Wear your ugliest outfit to the club for a good chance of getting in.

14) Contrary to all of my instincts, dimly-lit parks are totally safe in the middle of the night, especially when they are full of strangers drinking and smoking in all of the darkest corners.

15) Surfaces are meant to be covered with spray-paint. The graffiti here is magnificent.

Berlin has taken my calcifying brain and twisted it like a sponge, revealing some challenging ways to live in and share a city. It is confusing to my suspicious mind, but I am impressed by what seems to me a deliberate absence of judgement. Berlin seems to be truly a city of independents, co-existing with a level of harmony that isn’t perfect but really seems to have worked.

Aqua

I was told the Ionian Sea in the south of Albania had clear, blue water.

I found clear, blue water, and white sand and smooth pebbles. The sea was so salty that I floated like an apple, bobbing in the calm water without having to move my limbs at all.

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Thanks Cee for the posting opportunity!

Conformist

There is a bar on every corner. Where there isn’t a bar, there’s a späti, and you can pull your own beer from the fluorescent-lit refrigerators, pay for it, and drink outside on the ground, on the curb, or at the picnic tables the convenient stores here set up outside for just this purpose.

By the canal, groups of people sit on the sidewalk, their bicycles leaning against the bridge railing and their beer growing warm in their hot laps. The canal is full of bicycles. The streets are paved in bottle tops. The picnic tables are plastered with stickers. The walls are covered in graffiti, colorful and layered and meaningful. Everything is meaningful, or seems to be. People here are meaningful. They dress in somber blacks, faded denim, utilitarian pants gathered at the ankles so that they won’t be caught up in the bicycle gears, hair hacked short on one side of the head and left in long, tangled locks on the other. They wear burkas. They wear tracksuits. I catch snippets of a conversation, because English is commonly spoken here. So is Spanish.

“I was destined to end up here.”

“It’s a place for people to come together in meaningful conversation.”

“…e increíblemente, agarró la cabeza del otro y la cortó.”

[wait…what was he talking about?]

I do not understand a word of German, and it embarrasses me. I do, however, understand German crying. I witnessed this at a café. A man looked at his phone and a sob visibly rose in his throat. His face gathered towards its center, and he covered his eyes with his sleeve. When his friend arrived, they hugged, and the friend laughed. The crying man smiled, and the sob escaped his agonized mouth. Maybe I don’t understand this kind of crying.

At the cafe, wasps crawl in and out of the sugar bowls. They investigate my espresso, they fly around my head and with my eyes closed I can feel their wings tickling my eyebrow. At the cafe, men cry, men yell and yelp. Women smoke. Bottles fall and break. Everyone talks. The tables are sticky with sugar and spilt milk. The wasps are everywhere. I cannot fit in, because I don’t know how to communicate. One the other hand, I’ve heard that many Americans who live in Berlin don’t bother to learn German.

I could be a nonconforming American. But I am a conformist, in this nonconforming city.

Bohemian Rhapsody

One song that I love, despite its ubiquity in mainstream culture, is Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I haven’t investigated where that name comes from, but I like to imagine that the highs and the lows, the darkness and the light of the song depict an artistic life lived in the extreme.

In Prague, the capital of the kingdom of Bohemia, visitors can gaze up at a different Bohemian masterpiece. The St. Vitus Cathedral is squeezed into the Prague Castle Complex, and visitors must look up to witness the overly-adorned pillars of Gothis splendor. Light and shadows play upon the faces of gruesome gargoyles. Serene Saints stand high above flying buttresses and art neuvou stained glass windows. It is a rhapsodic piece of work.

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Thanks to Cee for the photo challenge!

On the road


 

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I have written here about a bit of the traveling I’ve recently been doing with my partner, Andrés. But I haven’t given these stories any context. For those of you who read this blog, you might enjoy hearing about the Grand Plan. So here it is, the thesis to our travel, the overarching theme that will explain our movements for the next few months:

***~A multi-continental trip via land and sea.~***

We plan on traveling from Bulgaria (cheap flight) to Malaysia (friends to visit), without taking any planes. We want to see what the land looks like, what the water looks like, what it all smells like and even what it feels like. So the only airplanes we plan on taking are those into Europe and those out of South East Asia at the end of our trip. That’s it. Beyond those somewhat flexible parameters, our traveling isn’t particularly poetic or practical. We just decided we wanted to do this, planned our lives around it, and here we are, three weeks into the (one of the) trips of our lives.

Since we are on the move, transportation is of interest. We’ve been moved from place to place by cars, buses, boats and trains. I’ve found that the vehicle (and the company) can determine the mood of the landscape: in shared taxis, fellow passengers interact with one another, and their commentary narrates my taking-in of the various terrain and communities we passs through. On trains, my mind is fed by the world rushing by at a pleasant, swaying pace, and the sound of tracks passing underneath give my thoughts structure and drive. On the ferry in Croatia, we rushed along and stopped, rushing past islands and stopping at ports, where tourists stood out on the deck and smoked. We met a storm and cut headlong into whitecapped waves. We have dragged out suitcases, in some way, across every kilometers we’ve passed through, up and down stairs, in and out of over head racks and piles of unguarded luggage. We’re vagabonds… Glamabonds? Like camping with air conditioning, I can’t really compare our movements or accomondations to those of a true transient.

I’ve been trying to think of a lens through which to write about this trip. Traveling with a partner? Traveling without airplanes? The Mongolian empire? So far I seem to be most interested in the nitty-gritty details of getting from point A to B, in true Glamabond style. For the next few weeks, though, we won’t be moving much: we’ve unpacked our bags in a shared apartment in Berlin, and plan on sticking around for a bit. I’ll have more time to write, and spend less time to

What does friendliness look like to you?

Homemade mulberry rakija and Berry’s from the backyard, compliments of the chef.

Traveling, for me, is a state of heightened vulnerability, especially when the travel is done outside of the reaches of my native tongue. Without a home, without a routine, without words and their elaborate meanings, all I have to rely upon are crude sounds and the blunt signifiers of my body. But the movements of my body are infused with culture, too, and even the basic side-to-side shake of a head that I use as a “no” means a degree of “yes” in Albania.

We’ve been traveling the Balkans for two weeks: Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and Croatia. It took me a week to stop feeling unnerved by the humorless looks of strangers, the stares of the old couple following us as we stroll by their porch in the evening, the moody young mother pushing her chubby baby past us in a stroller. The cafe waiter solemnly asking for our order. In the first towns we visited, where the tourism industry seems to be predominantly a local one, I wondered if our blatantly foreign presence was unwelcome. Where are the smiles?

Both traveling and while at home, I smile a lot. I greet strangers with a smile, I smile at my loved ones. I smile at waiters and the workers at offices I resent having to visit. When I’m alone I practice making my eyes twinkle a little, because I like to cultivate a friendly look. Usually people smile back at me, and if they don’t, I understand it as a message: “I’m not interested in interacting with you”. Which is fine. I don’t want to interact extensively with most strangers. My indiscriminate smiling is simply to establish a general good will. My good will, it turns out, is nothing special. It doesn’t actually run that deep.

I’ve realized that here, in these lands of carefully distributed smiles. I might interpret the faces as closed, but the truth is we’ve encountered nothing but generosity and open hospitality. We’ve met strangers who want to spend time with us, who are interested in wrestling with our mismatched languages to learn something about one another. The old couple made endless phone calls at 11:00 pm to help us find a taxi. The young mother laughed as her baby giggled at the silly faces we made. The waiter’s face broke open with a smile when we tried our Albanian phrases on him, and he shared his mulberry rakija with us. Sometimes it even unsettles my jaded sensibility how endless this generosity appears to be: where is the limit? I’m the first to smile, but my limit for friendliness usually comes first. Once again, traveling teaches me that my fascinating (for me) and rapid judgements of strangers are usually dead wrong. Happily, I’m open to revision.

Four ways to get around Albania

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1) Tie on the boots, Fatos

Andrés and I walked into Albania. A driver, lacking proper papers to cross the border, left us with the Macedonian immigration agent after receiving half of our agreed payment. It was a sleepy Sunday, and few cars passed us as we rolled our bags along the countryless mountain road high above shining Lake Ohrid. In Albania, the agents looked at our passports but we received no stamps. It’s as though we were never there.

2) Share a taxi, Megi

The morning we left Pogradec for Albania’s capital Tiranë, we packed our bags and planned on waiting in the grape-strewn garden until 10:30, when we would walk to the bus station. I was stuffing my hairbrush into an outer pocket when Luli, our host, bustled into the room. “You go now! Taxi outside. Ready? You. Go. Now!” He grabbed my heavy suitcase and rolled it outside, past Amy the matted dog and the neat rows of potted flowers. In the street a dusty car was parked next to the public spring. A small old man in faded black sat in the back, and a blond teenager sat in the front seat with her iPhone. Flora and Luli kissed us goodbye and we were off, the hot wind blowing on my neck and the old man wedged into the middle seat, his hot panted leg digging into my own. Whenever we passed the crumbling ruins of factories and train tracks, he would poke me and say, gravely, “comunismi.”

3) Rent a car, Bujar

August is high season in Albania. In every city, the hotels double booked us and we tried again and again to find lodging that would stick. We finally found a hotel down south, on the Ionian Sea and across the border from Greece, but how to get there? Every car in the city had already been rented…but no: our Tiranë host (who had also double booked the room we were planing on sleeping in, and gave us the living room couch instead) knew a guy who knew a guy. We drove out of town on Wednesday morning in a dusty blue Ford Focus, no gas, no AC and no rear mirror. I hoped that the evil eye/ horseshoe talisman hanging from where the mirror used to be would protect us.

4) Travel in style, Bardhyl

Our dusty blue Ford did the trick: we saw it all, and after two 5-hour longhauls and a few day trips, we had the car back in Tiranë, gasless and parked against the same shady wall we found it on. It was time to move on. A gleaming white vehicle with Montenegro plates waited for us, ready to bring us to our next destination. With Momo the driver’s expertise, the 2-hour wait at the Albania/Montenegro border didn’t seem that bad. He expertly handled the winding decent into Kotor along a 200 year road, dropping us off with another patiently waiting host.

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Languid and Blue

I’m expecting to take a lot of photos on this trip, so I’m grateful to the bloggers behind the Lens Artist weekly photo challenge for coming up with a way for photographers to share their work with each other. This week’s theme is blue. I think immediately of the languid blue shades that emerge at sunset near large bodies of water, especially still lakes. The Albanian side of Lake Ohrid gave me this blue vista last night:

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Similarly languid was the water of Lake Michigan last May:

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Lake Ohrid and other splendors

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Sunset in Pogradec

We’ve been traveling through the Balkans for 5 days now: Bulgaria, Macedonia and Albania. We’ve seen the grandiose arquitecture of Sofia, a 150 year-old capital built upon the ruins of a 5th century Roman metropolis. In Macedonia, the slim miranets of mosques point up blue and white from the clusters of red brick houses. We arrived two days ago to Lake Ohrid, one of the oldest and deepest lakes in Europe. This lake is ancient, maybe 5 million years old, and it lays over the borders of Macedonia and Albania with the calm confidence of age.

We have been scrambling to communicate, but there’s little hope for us: The alphabet of Bulgaria’s Slavic language is slightly different from that of Macedonia, where they use a “j” and pronounce their country Makedonia, with a hard /k/. Albania’s language is not Slavic: in fact, it is unique in the European languages, and linguists think it evolved from an old Balkan language. This is all to say that my abilities to carry on a conversation so far have been pretty minimal, especially among the older population. I resort to miming: eating air barbarically with my hands and tickling the same air when I turn it into a keyboard to show I want to do some work. Smiling is culturally relative, and I’m realizing how language is fundamental to good manners: we have learned the words for “Thank you,” “Excuse me,” and greetings. Fala mendireet. Me fal. Tuña tieta. These are the phrases I’m working on now, in Albania. Soon, in Croatia, we’ll switch back to blogadaria and its friend izvenitye.

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The walk along Lake Ohrid is full of entertainment

Learning the words is a small hurdle to jump for the privialage of being here, near this beautiful body of water and the communities that have been established on its shores. We ate trout last night in Pogradec, while the entire city came out for its nightly 8:00 pm walk. Babies and their parents, young woman in heels, men wearing brand name t-shirts and elderly women in dark dresses and kerchiefs all walked slowly down the lake’s sidewalk, socializing in the most easy and natural of ways. We merged with the crowds to walk back to our room, where I fell easily to sleep under well preserved 90210 sheets.

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The view from our room over Lake Ohrid on the Macedonian side.

Quiet

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The Cathedral Church Sveta Nadelya has one of the most beautiful interiors I’ve seen. It has been restored many times, and was partially destroyed in a terrorist attack in 1925.

The night we left for our trip, the sounds of the city came together to send us off. At 3:00 am, I awoke to a couple dissessembling a refrigerator that had been abandoned on the sidewalk outside our bedroom window. They tried to load it into their idling van quietly, but large appliances don’t go down easily. They left, and were soon replaced by a horn-happy car. Then, a reggaeton blaster. A trash truck stopped by to grind the waste of the neighborhood. An old man with his salsa boom box. Soon the sun started rising and the upstairs neighbor started dropping his body building weights. By the time the school bus arrived to summon its passenger with more honking, I was out of bed and drinking coffee. There’s only so much noise I can take the night before a big trip.

Now, after a short stop over in Barcelona, we’ve arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria. Another city, and with it, the roar of traffic outside our window. The scream of graffiti on the building walls. The voices raised with alchohol outside the window in the wee hours of the morning. It feels quiet, though. I am quiet: I don’t know the language! In 24 hours, I’ve learned to say zdrasti (hi) and blogodaria (thank you) (but you can also say merci). I am quiet, and the people I see are quiet towards me, perhaps sensing that there’s not much for us to say.

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Lots of graffiti here in Sofia.

A friend here told us that the city is empty, with everyone leaving for the shore during the summer months. We’ve had no problem finding a table at the many sidewalk restaurants and cafes we stop at, where rosey tomatos are served with parsley and fresh white cheese. There are plenty of people to see, though: Bulgarian Orthodox priests in black cassocks. Friendly children playing hide and seek. The women of Sofia are fun to watch because they are flamboyant, floral women, often with a bouquet in their hand. Outside of the city, rose petals are pressed into precious oil that is sold around the world.

We visited Roman ruins and Bulgarian Orthodox churches with gold ceilings and domes. In the afternoon, we sat under trees shedding tear-shaped leaves that glowed in the afternoon sun.  I’ve learned how to say тих: it is the word for quiet here.

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Enjoying the Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski Russian church from the Tsarska Gardens.